By Gabe Meline
In 1998, then-27-year-old Brad Mehldau recorded a very elegant rendition of "Exit Music (For a Film)," sourced from Radiohead's then-recent opus OK Computer. It exploded Mehldau's visibility, turned a young generation on to jazz, and summarily overshadowed his entire repertoire. To fuel public demand, more Radiohead songs followed, along with introspective interpretations of Nick Drake, George Harrison and Paul Simon.
That Mehldau is an iconoclast is a generally accepted, though largely untrue, point of view owing mostly to his flirtation with non-jazz idioms (the first time Mehldau performed in the Bay Area, he appeared at a small club specializing mostly in hip-hop). What unfortunately has gotten lost is Mehldau's own intricate compositional skill and heroic ability to infuse deserving beauty into hoary, sentimental tunes ("Young at Heart," "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Secret Love"). Like Sonny Rollins, he lets melody be the judge, even while pleading insanity on the stand.
The pianist recently teamed up with electric-fusion guitarist Pat Metheny for an eponymous release, Metheny/Mehldau, to explore the simplicity of harmonic invention as one half of a pair. Though Mehldau hates being compared to Bill Evans--even going so far as to explain why in the liner notes to his albums--any piano/guitar duet in the realm of jazz must be weighed against the two albums of infinite treasure that Evans made with guitarist Jim Hall, Undercurrent and Intermodulation. Amazingly, Metheny and Mehldau capture the same telepathic brilliance as their predecessors, and for the most part their intimate work together is breathtaking; Metheny's compulsion for guitar effects pollutes only a small percentage of the dialogue.
Mehldau has found rare time for collaboration outside of his trio with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, and a four-man follow-up, Quartet, arrived last month as no surprise. It is just as much a rewarding listen as Metheny/Mehldau, if slightly less voyeuristic, and points further toward the hope that Mehldau's fantastic talent will eventually dilute his reputation as "the Radiohead guy."
Brad Mehldau and Pat Metheny appear with Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard this Tuesday, March 27, at the Napa Valley Opera House. 1030 Main St., Napa. $55. 707.226.7372.